Let's Review: Prepare for a rough ride through ‘Kingdom City’ at La Jolla Playhouse

"Kingdom City," Sheri Wilner's play about a small Midwestern town where biblical teachings collide with worldly ambitions, has a terrific cast who must portray some unlikeable characters.

There are a lot of twists in this drama, but by the time some of them arrive, I was already too irritated to care.

New Yorkers Daniel (Todd Weeks) and his wife, Miriam (Kate Blumberg), decide to leave the Big Apple for the small town of Kingdom City. Daniel is a writer who has not published anything. Miriam is a theatrical director who has not yet directed a play.

Their plan is for Miriam to teach theater at a Missouri high school while Daniel works on his writing prospects. Miriam jumps right into her plans with her class of students (only three are actually on scene.)

Katie (Cristina Gerla) is a sweet product of the Bible land, dating her boyfriend Matt (Austyn Myers), wearing a promise ring and attending youth pastor Luke’s (Ian Littleworth) purity classes. Matt is a meek young man, eager to be an actor, be with Katie and adhere to Pastor Luke’s way of life.

It’s clear right off the bat that Miriam is ready to work with these two. Enter the crazy, nearly psycho Crystal (Kate Sapper), who practically assaults the teacher as she arrives like a hurricane. She demands that everything center on her and not her co-actors, whom she belittles and calls names.

Crystal is ecstatic when Miriam announces she plans to direct the controversial work, “The Crucible.” She immediately marches up to Matt with inappropriate words and gestures. “No real actor is religious,” she gushes, thinking this will gain her favor with the director.

Miriam and Daniel are Jewish. Miriam doesn’t expect the school’s backlash when administrators refuse to let her produce the Arthur Miller play. At this point for me, “Kingdom City” begins its negative skid to the end.

Foremost is the excessive use of profanity by Crystal and her vulgar accusations at those on the scene. Playwright Wilner’s theme of accepting different points of view is surely a valid issue in today’s complex world, however the message grows degrading and off-kilter as the drama progresses.

When Miriam learns she can’t stage the play she wants, it seems to be more about her than the conflict of whose opinion is right or wrong. Daniel’s character has little input into the controversy and his so-so attitude adds nothing to the plot.

Youth Pastor Luke intimidates, manipulates and accuses his students Matt and Katie rather than becoming an effective mentor, which is irritating. Crystal’s unending self-righteous, pompous attitude, excessive use of profanity (and one action that for me went too far), is constantly grating.

“Kingdom City,” directed by Jackson Gay, is on stage in the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, which for this production, divides the seats into two sides facing each other.

From my response to the performance, after the Intermission, I wasn’t surprised to see some seats now empty.

While the drama itself did not work for me, the Playhouse creative team did a good job with the staging, set design and lighting. The cast members were spot on in their portrayals, even though their characters weren’t pleasant.

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